Michelle Williams, Kelly Reichardt Interview

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Mountain”) and director Kelly Reichardt to talk about their new movie “Wendy and Lucy,” based on the short story “Train Choir” by Jon Raymond. Proving why she is one of the most highly-regarded auteurs of current cinema, Kelly Reichardt’s (“Old Joy”) subtle storytelling technique uses a formal minimalist style to weave together a unique emotional and political road film.

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) is driving to Ketchikan, Alaska, in hopes of a summer of lucrative work at the Northwestern Fish cannery, and the start of a new life with her dog, Lucy. When her car breaks down in Oregon, however, the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she confronts a series of increasingly dire economic decisions, with far-ranging repercussions for herself and Lucy. “Wendy and Lucy” addresses issues of sympathy and generosity at the edges of American life, revealing the limits and depths of people’s duty to each other in tough times.

Michelle Williams starred opposite Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Her performance earned her an Academy Award nomination. She has appeared in Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent” and Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.” She recently finished shooting Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” with Leonardo diCaprio.

American landscapes and narratives of the road are themes that run throughout co-writer/director/editor Kelly Reichardt’s work. Reichardt’s film “Old Joy,” winner of a Tiger Award at the 2007 Rotterdam Festival, is an exploration of contemporary liberal masculinity in the Great Northwest. Reichardt’s first feature, “River of Grass,” a sun-drenched film noir shot in her hometown in Dade County,
Florida, was cited as “one of the best films of 1995” by The Village Voice and Film Comment. Her 1999 short, “Ode,” is a super-8 reinterpretation of the Herman Raucher novel “Ode to Billy Joe” and features an original soundtrack by Will Oldham.

Here’s what Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt had to tell us about their recent collaboration:

Q: Can you talk about what attracted you to this project and how you became involved?

MICHELLE: Sure. Let's see. It came through a mutual friend of ours, Todd Haynes, who I had worked with and had a really good experience being directed by him. And it first came to me in short story form with a little letter from him saying "This is a dear friend, I think you guys would get along." So it started like that, and I sort of lived with the short story for a while, and kind of kept it by my bed. I sort of slept next to it for a while, kind of like when you're a teenager and you put a school book underneath your pillow because you hear that...you know, like osmosis or something? That the information will seep into your brain without having to do any work? [laughs] And I had a little bit of a relationship like that, like maybe it would come into some sort of dream world or something. You know, I'm a reader and I like to read books, and so it really captured...There were so many things in it, so many qualities of the writing, of the descriptive language, that were really captivating, but I also thought totally un-filmic. Like you couldn't...How do you put that on a screen? I don't know, but they...I was curious. And then the script came through, and it was a really natural decision, and my own decision, and sort of made outside of anyone. I just like called my agent one day and said, "I'm going to Portland. I'll be there for the month of August." [laughs]

KELLY: [jokes] She said, "No you won't!" [laughs]

Q: What does Lucy represent to you?

KELLY: She's not a symbol to me. She's a companion for someone who doesn't
have a lot of social skills. So to me, she's a companion. I don't see her as having a big symbolic role.

Q: What were some of the challenges of working with the dog?

KELLY: A completely untrained...

MICHELLE: A completely untrained animal! [laughs] There were so many things that were in the story about, especially in our sort of final moment together, so many really beautiful things in the script about the way she arches her back and the way the sunlight hits her coat and her tail. And none of that happened. [laughs]

KELLY: You know, the same dog is in my other film, Old Joy, and Will Oldham talked about [how] the acting with Lucy always forced him to be in the complete present, because you are dealing with this...

MICHELLE: ...with an unpredictable creature.

Q: He wasn't that good at improv?

KELLY: Yeah. The squirrels. [laughs] Exactly.

Q: What kind of backstory did you develop for Wendy? Or was there more on that in the short story?

MICHELLE: I can't remember if there was in the short story...

KELLY: There wasn't. No, there's not in the short story. We should say that the short story was written by Jonathan Raymond...And it's different. I mean, we came up with a storyline together, and then he wrote it as a short story and then I wrote it as a script, and we just both edit each other's stuff, and it's a constant back and forth. But the backstory was just something that we made up for Michelle for her to have something to work with. But it was nothing that would ever enter the film...Or certainly not an interview. [laughs] But because it is a real slice of life, it is supposed to be the idea of spending a little bit of time with a stranger, and you don't know where she came from and you don't know what
happens to her...You know, one of the underlying themes for me for the film is just posing the question of "What's our responsibility to each other as complete strangers?" And so she's always sort of intended to sort of roll in and roll out. But certainly Michelle needs a backstory just to work with.

MICHELLE: ...to not feel like a phony when I show up. I think that's how you fill space and silence, is if you have a sense of history for the character, so that it can be still, but not empty.

Q: Did you darken your hair for the character to look plainer?

MICHELLE: I just wanted to look like somebody who doesn't get their hair [styled]. And I think it's also easier to feel "more stealthy"—less visible, or something.

Q: The story feels very timely, sociopolitically.

MICHELLE: I think that was on purpose. [laughs] The timeliness...

Q: It reminded me of the Italian film Umberto D.

KELLY: [jokes] I've never heard of that film. What are you speaking of? [laughs] A lot of the Italian neorealism just seemed, really, a good time to go back and revisit. There was also some new German cinema, like some Fassbinder, that I went back to. And all those themes, the social issues, seemed really relevant for the moment. And even some of the British, Angry Young Man, '60s films of just...You know, like the kids in the beginning of the film, who are these gutter punks who really live off the grid all over America, they're a big network of kids and they catch trains and they just move around the country, and I think they come to Oregon to sort of lick their wounds...I mean, their circumstances are all different, surely, but some of them see just no opportunity, and would rather choose that life, which is really rough. I mean, hopping trains post-9/11 and roaming around the country, you know, they get beat up. They're scarred. But they would rather do that than have a crap job that doesn't offer them anything. They just don't see a place for themselves, I would say, most of those kids that I talked to. And so they have this community amongst themselves. But it's a total throwback. Just even aesthetically, seeing these kids, it's so Depression era. So that sort of really already bolstered the original ideas that Jon and I were talking about at the beginning of just this divide of class.

MICHELLE: Those kids really have a sense of being in it together, which is something that Wendy doesn't have...Wendy's a step above the sort of financial/social position that they're in, but they have each other.

KELLY: And then at some point, it's questionable if she really is a step above. I think it's clearer in Jon's story. There is this moment in the story that I really love, of this idea that when the security guard shows up on his day off and he has a woman in the car and he talks about dropping a kid off, and that she realizes he has a life, and that he's not in the same situation she's in, and feels a little bit of a loneliness, or betrayal almost, at that moment, to find out that he's not where she is.

Q: Did you deliberately use a minimalist style to underscore that feeling throughout the film?

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I would say all my films are like that, but it does seem to... [laughs] I mean, I guess it is minimalist. And I'm not sure what comes first.

Q: Well, it works really well.

KELLY: Yeah, it works. Yeah.

Q: You did an earlier film with Larry Fessenden. Did you approach him...?

KELLY: He's a very good friend. It's not so much approaching. I mean, he produced the movie also. [jokes] I approached him. "Larry, come out! Be the guy! The creepy guy! Come on!" [laughs] Is that what you were going to ask? Did I approach him for the part?

Q: Well, how did you approach him with the project?

KELLY: Oh, we're very close. I mean, I borrowed his editing system, which was supposed to be for like a month, and I kept it for six months cutting the project in my house. [laughs] And he's used to me begging stuff off him. He's really helped me. He runs a little production company, and I overstay my welcome there all the time. He's been very generous to me, is all I can say. And he doesn't really fly or anything. You know, doing the scene with Michelle was exciting to him.

Q: This was a very special piece that required someone like Michelle who could carry it...

KELLY: I know!

Q: Did you see her in something that made you think she was right for the role? She holds the audience's attention so well...

KELLY: Doesn't she?

MICHELLE: Thanks.

KELLY: I remember the day I saw Brokeback Mountain, actually, I thought, "Oh, I must be like a ton of filmmakers right now that are seeing this performance and going, 'Wow, who's she?'" Like I knew who she was already, but I was like, "I gotta revisit!" And I went from the movie to meet Todd Haynes. He was in the city. And we just spent that whole lunch just...You know, we were really bowled over by the movie. And then I went on a re-discovering [of] Michelle, like seeing everything Michelle did. And I know that I wasn't alone. Like everyone's going out and renting her films now and seeing everything! [laughs] It was such an incredible performance. And then you just see this body of work, and I was just like, "Wow, there's no false moment." And you know, so then you have that idea
in your head, but you don't know if you're going to get that actress. And then Todd was like, "She would be into it." And it was just such a pitfall. Everyone kept saying to me, "You have to keep your mind open to other things. You have to open your mind." Our casting person kept saying, who is also the casting person on I'm Not There, and fortunately shares Michelle's coffee shop in Brooklyn... [laughs]

MICHELLE: She lives like practically next door to me in Brooklyn. Every morning, she'd be like, "So..." [laughs]

KELLY: She'd be texting me on the way to the coffee shop. "I'm going to the coffee shop!" [laughs] But you know...It did completely rely on the performance. She's in almost every frame. And it relied on someone who could be so still and have something just come through. And you know, you really just never know. And the first day that we were shooting together and just looking through the lens while Michelle is doing a scene, your heart beats, and you'd be like, "Wow, okay...I have many things to fear, but this is not one of them." [laughs]

MICHELLE: That's a lot of flattery. [laughs]

Q: Logistically, what was your experience of working with your canine co-star? Was it easy?

KELLY: Just remember all the flattery I just gave you! [laughs] She went back and looked at all her work.

MICHELLE: [laughs] It is true about the "being in the moment" thing, you know? And the unpredictability forces you to keep your balance. I mean, literally, squirrels were big problems for us. But yeah, I mean, it was a relationship that I had to learn about, because I don't have a dog, and I haven't had a dog since I was a kid. So what Kelly was saying, that it's different...You know, being alone is different than being alone with a dog. And so that was a relationship that I just didn't know that much about. And so I spent time with Lucy to kind of get inside what that feels like--you're alone, but there's a comfort. And animals are just so
therapeutic for trauma or bad times or whatever. So I was interested in how somebody behaves when they're outside of human contact, and outside of
self-consciousness.

Q: Was Lucy distracted by you on set? Was she looking past the camera at you?

KELLY: No. If we're shooting her, I can't shoot. I have to have the monitor and move away from the camera. Or sometimes I'll be in her view somewhere, which will make her cry. [laughs] It's terrible! I mean, in Old Joy, we were in the woods and it was all very beautiful for a dog. But at some point, I was just like, "I'm a jerk. These aren't fun locations for a dog." But she got a lot of attention from everyone on the crew, constantly.

Q: That first shot is amazing. How many times did you have to do that with Lucy?

KELLY: Well, we can't do anything too many times. But Lucy would look around. That was an instance where sometimes I was...I screwed myself by being a little too close to the camera, because it was just impossible not to be. But she would just wander around. But usually, I mean, these guys were playing together, so they could be pretty engaged. I think we did that one three times, four times. And that was shot with...There were two cinematographers, and that is a local guy named Greg Schmitt, from Portland, who also shot all the train stuff.

MICHELLE: It was like the camera on a tripod on basically like a dolly. [laughs] It was such a rinky-dink kind of thing. I mean, there was no track. You know, usually those big sweeping shots...It was such an ambitious shot for the machinery that you had to work with--to do this long tracking shot?

KELLY: That was going to be my first ever steady cam shot, and as soon as I started looking, I was like, "Oh, I just can't do it! I'm making a horror film! Give me the dolly!" [laughs] They were like, "It's going to be too bouncy," but I was like, "I'll take it. I can't handle the steady cam."

Q: Was the recurring sound of the train a symbol for something?

KELLY: Well, the short story was called Train Choir. And in fact, the film was called Train Choir the whole time we were shooting it. And my concept was that I was going to use the trains as like a musical score throughout the film. Whether that comes across or not, that was my idea. [laughs] And then it seemed to make that subtext just too much in the foreground to keep the title in the end, and it seemed a little too poetic, I thought, for the movie that's just so, sort of...

Q: Well, it worked for me.

KELLY: Okay, great! But that was sort of the idea that the sound would be...You know, it's commerce. It's people going to work, it's trucks, it's buses. And then the train...And then Michelle's humming gets sort of put into the mix. I did the sound edit in New York with Eric Offin, who I did the Old Joy sound with, and then we came to LA and we did the mix with Leslie Shatz, who Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes had turned me on to, and he had just done Paranoid Park. And it's so hard recording trains. They come and they go! [laughs] I mean, it's really tricky. And he had this huge library of train sounds, because he had just done Paranoid Park, of which we robbed the library. [laughs] So that was really great, because I had been working with these sort of temporary train sounds, and then you got
to go in and have really powerful sounds, which is cool.

Q: Can you talk about how pertinent this film is? It's amazing that it would
come out now.

KELLY: It's just amazing that the entire world economy would crash on our behalf for the film! [laughs] I mean, when we made the film, our first thought was we're going to make a film about the economy. But that was before things were even this bad. But it was post-Katrina, and it was in the middle of this ever-present divide of feeling just the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and some of the response from Katrina of just, "You should have never let yourself be that vulnerable in the first place." And Barbara Bush's notorious trip down, where you just really saw, "Wow, it's not indifference, it's complete disdain for poverty [that] we have in this country." [laughs] So we started with this idea, like, could you, if you were a person that had the wherewithal and the gumption to pull yourself up and make your situation better, and you were smart enough to realize there was an opportunity around you...And so in the mythological "Go West" kind of genre, could you, without benefit of education, a social net, a family net, improve your situation? "We'll give you $525. What can you do?" [laughs] And that was sort of the seed of the idea. And yeah, going back to all the Italian neorealism where people, based on age in Umberto D., or whatever it is, class, where you're just of
no use to society anymore and you are just a drag...And we just kept wondering, "I wonder what the state of things will be by the time the movie's done?"

Q: After the complete failure of the banking system, hundreds of thousands of people are getting laid off...

KELLY: Every day, it's another country. And it does show the question of, "Are we all connected?" We're definitely all connected in one sense, as you watch the dominos fall. [laughs] So why not on a personal, one-on-one, as people, if we're all connected as countries? Not to go over the hill on it. But yeah, it's interesting. But you know, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy were so made at different points for me in the Bush Administration. Old Joy just after the re-election of George Bush and just feeling the death of liberalism, and just thinking there's no end to this swing of the right wing. Like where do we fit in in this country? And then in Wendy and Lucy, it's in a different place, but it still has this feeling of there's no
place...I think of Wendy and the Kurt character in Old Joy...How do these people fit in? And so the movie's coming out in the economic crisis, but it's also coming out with President-elect Obama, which is something. That's something pretty huge, right?

Q: What do each of you have coming up next?

MICHELLE: I'm in the middle of a break. This is my time off. I mean, I did two films after Wendy and Lucy, so those will come out. I did a Lukas Moodysson film, and then I did a Scorsese film in...I think I finished it in June, or something. So, I said I was going to take a year off. And that's what I'm doing.

KELLY: Isn't it a good break? [laughs]

MICHELLE: It's not so much of a chunk of time off, but I've just been working so much for such a long time I think I stopped feeling creative a little while ago, and I was just running on fumes. And I didn't realize it. I thought somebody else would step in and say like, "Oh, you're exhausted. You have burnout. Take a break." But when you're an adult, you have to be your own monitor of that. [laughs]

KELLY: [laughs] Still [being] shocked by adulthood. You have to keep making your decisions. I know what you mean. Like, "Who's going to plan this out?" [laughs]

MICHELLE: Sort of, yeah! And just like the loneliness of the decision-making, you know? So I just realized I have to stop now, and hopefully refuel--fill back up somehow.

“Wendy and Lucy” opens in theaters on December 10th.

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